This was the end. The end of a life we took as a given for too long.
Even when I closed my eyes, I could not escape the alarming images. In my mind, they fought for attention, one worse than the other. All the scenarios of what would go wrong. All the people that would die. I heard their screams inside my head—tortured, murdered, raped.
But there was something else. A premonition that something even more awful was to come. Something that would make this scenario pale in comparison. My body shivered. I was barely aware of how I collapsed to my knees and frantically held my head in my hands.
It was her voice. The only voice that would tear me from my nightmare. From what I had become, from the fate that pulled me with its claws, beckoned me to let go of sanity.
I had to save her. This was the thought that kept me alive. At least the human part of me. She took my hands. Her skin felt cold and sweaty, her fingernails trimmed short but caked with grit.
“It’ll be okay. We just need to get out of here,” she whispered. Her voice sounded coarse.
When her hands gently touched my skin, my vision exploded again. I saw an endless abyss of pain. Her pain. It ate my heart like acid. She drowned in it, choking, stretching her hand out in a desperate attempt to escape. I needed to save her. Not from the surrounding nightmare, but from this pain that ate her slowly, seamlessly. The pain of losing everything and everyone, her son, her husband, her home. But was I able to?
I opened my eyes and stared into the darkness. Pure, all-consuming darkness. Chaos reigned around us. The Global city of London had lost all electricity. The border was no longer intact. We had crossed the threshold of what used to be a digital wall of ones and zeros between the Outer Areas and Global London, somewhere at a city called Banbury. I leaned against the wall of a building that was some kind of real estate agency. The stone felt cold and moist against my palm. The huge metal pillars of the border stood against the night sky, visible behind the buildings of the little high street filled with inns, pubs and shops, some of them still from the 16th and 17th centuries, with carved arches and timber porches. Had I been here once? Something about famous Banbury cakes lit up in the back of my mind, from my early student years.
Outcries came from the pub at the other end of the corner. Two Sub soldiers dragged out two shapes into the street. Their faces were unrecognizable in the darkness, and I only spotted the Sub soldiers as such because they wore dark linen and a piece of cloth over nose and mouth. And they used knives. The blade was always their preferred weapon of choice, because it caused more pain and a slow death. One of them slit the throat of his victim while the other winced from the pain of being stabbed in the chest and stomach. Rahab pulled Amber close and turned her face away from the scene. But the wailing and weeping could still be heard all around us—in the pubs, the homes and the streets. The Sub army attacked like a horde of mad, hungry dogs.
If only Björn could see what he had wreaked with this virus he had released into the entire system. He was ready to kill me if not for Manasseh who, with his last breath, spared me a fate he took on instead. Lead them out of darkness, Adama. These were his last words. The last testament of a monster.
The virus had shut off all electricity and with it the border that had prevented outsiders and terrorists without an implanted chip to enter the city. It had never failed before, had always been the protective wall for those who lived their reckless lives in here. I had been one of them. It seemed ages ago. Now, the metal pillars stood against the night sky like misshapen monsters who had lost all their menace. Banbury descended into chaos as no street lamp, no light from the windows and shops, no illumination at all penetrated this heavy darkness.
I grabbed Rahab’s arm, and we ran into a narrow alleyway and out into a bigger street, hiding behind brick buildings and corners, hoping to find a vehicle and get the hell out of here. The London suburbs have become a war zone. I shrunk back and pushed Rahab and Amber against a wall as directly in front of us, around ten Sub soldiers stopped a car and dragged the young driver out. They took their turns beating him while he struggled and yelled for help.
I dragged Rahab into an alley and out into another dark street. We saw behind the glass of a shop where an owner was dragged out from behind the counter and sliced with an axe. They left him to bleed out on the ground. Here and there, people were pulled out of their homes right into the street where the Sub would execute them with metal bats, sledgehammers, and knives they snatched right out of their kitchens. They would not give them a quick and clean exit. They wanted to make them pay. A cry of a woman echoed from the window right above us. She was probably raped. I remembered Danny McCain, remembered clearly the animal eyes that had been staring at her defenseless body, remembered the Sub swallowing her whole. I could only imagine what they did to the women here in the city, fueled with the hatred they carried towards city people. Rahab held Amber close and kissed her forehead. The teenage girl trembled, despite her mother’s embrace. What she had lived through the past twenty-four hours should be spared any child. I leaned my head against the brick wall of the building we hid behind. At least I managed to save her. For now. I thought about the images in my mind. This pain I sensed inside Rahab scared me. It sat too deep inside her bones.
“There’s a gas station, maybe we’ll find a car there,” I whispered. “We just need to get to the trees behind it.”
As we sprinted, my gaze wandered over the city I used to love. The suburbs in particular had carried the spirit of ancient times. Students and artists have roamed around these buildings preserved from history long gone by day and partied in hip basements by night. I remembered Oxford. Those were probably the most light-hearted years of my life, not a care in the world except for what the next day held. These memories seemed like those of another person. Was this really something this city deserved? Something the people deserved? Gunshots echoed around us. Civilians tried to flee, but there was no escape for them. The Sub soldiers only kept coming. Thomas had apparently signaled to them to crawl out from Snowdonia, and this was on the way to London. As the hours would pass, more would come.
Had the virus had its effects only here, in Britain? No. I knew that this happened all over the world. I felt it. The global authorities probably worked hard on switching everything back on. There should be electricity reserves, but they’d only last for days. Would they be able to get civilization going again? And why wasn’t I afraid of this? My mind was occupied with what was to come after. But I only sensed fragments, nothing I could put together into a coherent picture.
We sprinted towards the group of trees behind the gas station that would provide us with shelter. A metal flying monster in the shape of an elongated sphere emerged from the treetops. A drone. Rahab flinched, but it didn’t target us. How did I know? I just felt it. Knew what it would do. This was how I had always managed to stay a step ahead of the metal beasts. The drone aimed at a group of Subs about to enter the gas station shop. They all wore loose, dark linen clothes and, as always, cloth above mouth and nose, and carried knives, axes and blades of all kinds in each hand. Even in this pure darkness, I saw their eyes glisten with murderous rage. The drone shot straight at them and hit one of them into the stomach. The others fled through the glass doors of the shop, while the one they left behind lifted his weapon and fired at the drone. A useless act. The damaged material would self-assemble in seconds. The only way to defeat a drone was to pull out its batteries.
He died two seconds later. The drone concentrated on the fugitive Subs, trying to shoot them from inside the shop. The glass doors shattered and collapsed on the concrete. This was our window. A blue Sedan stood right at the edge of the gas station. I couldn’t see if it was empty, but it wouldn’t matter. I squeezed Rahab’s hand as a sign and motioned with my hands towards the car. We ran. Shots behind us. Suddenly, I sensed I’d lost Rahab’s grip. As I turned, a man in dark linen clothes dragged Amber away from us, his gun at her temple. Rahab froze.
“I know you,” he whispered to me. “You’re the drone killer.”
“Leave her alone,” I raised my hand, trying to calm him, “It’s just a child.”
“I’ll shoot her right here, you bastard! I don’t care!” he yelled. “You eliminate that drone, or she’s dead.”
I could take him. But I couldn’t risk Amber’s life. Rahab’s hands trembled. I took a moment, then nodded. One drone was not even a challenge anymore. With what Manasseh had done to me, I had already taken on three. It hadn’t been my limit.
Lead them out of darkness.
Did he mean this darkness? The darkness the blackout had caused? When I closed my eyes and remembered his expression, I knew there was more to it. It was not what he had trained me for during the last year. Or maybe Manasseh had been a paranoid old man who tried to save himself.
“If I come back and find you’ve hurt any of them, in any way,” I said, “I’ll kill you.”
I sprinted. My mind fell into the pool of darkness that somehow connected me to everything and everyone. That blurred the lines between past, present and future. I fell deeper. Felt the drone and its programmed steps before it would even perform them. This was the state of ecstasis. But since the labs, it had become so much more. Manasseh’s physical and mental torture in London’s laboratories was like a fog that remained in the back of my mind. I remembered more the sensations than the details, but I realized that the physical and mental pain he had caused me back then had changed me forever. He had taken my body apart and put it back together, had made my bone structure denser, my muscles stronger, inserted hormones of all kinds and even changed my DNA. He had trained me to excel in ecstasis, because it had become his life’s vision to create Homo Deus. But why? I always assumed it was out of selfish motive to escape his own death. But his last act had proven me wrong and left me guessing yet again.
A step, a slide. My feet pushed off the ground and used the momentum to climb the drone. My hands at the handle. Pulling it out with a force I didn’t even know I possessed. It was over in seconds. The entire place suddenly stood still.
Everyone stared at me.
The Sub men armed to the teeth gazed with wide eyes. The visitors and salesman, who peeked from behind the counter, held their breaths.
“No more bloodshed,” I said to the Sub soldiers. “Just leave!”
They obeyed, ran past me into the street, and vanished. Their disappearance brought some relief, but I knew that more were coming soon.
“Get a lot of food and water,” I said to the people in the store, “and run into the woods, hide in the Neutral Area. Just get away from here.”
I turned around to see Rahab and Amber sprint towards the store. Their captor had also left. I fetched some pre-packed sandwiches and a bottle of water for our trip and instructed Rahab to follow suit. Rahab and Amber secured some supplies, and we walked to the sedan. From afar, I saw a man holed up inside. He was middle-aged. His hands shook at the sight of me. I opened the door and motioned with my head.
He obeyed. Mustering all his courage, he stared into my eyes. “Please, take me with you.”
I took a deep breath and shook my head. “Sorry.”
“Please, I’ll pay you.”
“Electronic money is useless. You won’t be able to take hold of your accounts.”
Their world fell apart. I saw it now. Everything they had relied on—money, military safety, the internet—all of it ended. Maybe it was a good thing. The only thing that could open their eyes.
“Please,” he whispered, clinging to my shirt, “I’ll die here.”
I pitied him. He was alone. No family. No real friends. All of them were on their own now. I looked over to Rahab, but she only stared at him in spite.
“This is what you deserve,” her words came out like spit in his face. “Let’s go, Adama.”
She climbed the back seat with Amber while I hesitated for a moment. I knew I couldn’t take him with us, but why not? I felt like I should. Like I couldn’t leave him here alone.
“Adama,” Rahab’s voice came from inside the car. She tilted her head to the side and pressed her lips together. I let out a deep breath and sat down behind the steering wheel, turning on the motor. I had no idea how long the electricity would keep it running, but there was no way to refuel it now. Putting the car in reverse, I backed out of the station. The man just stared at us, horror in his eyes.
I accelerated the car through the streets so that no Sub group could stop us before we left the city and made it to the Neutral Areas. But I also felt a strange urge inside my gut. As if we were late. Late for what?
“Where’re we going?” Rahab asked.